Monday, August 05, 2002

La mattina del cinque di agosto

Today the news on TV is unanimous in remembering the anniversary of Marilyn Monroe's death. It took me a while to realize that "the fifth of August" tugged a very different memory in me. And finally I got it: it's the fist line of one of the most famous, and notorious, war songs in Italian history.

It has been officially collected in Novara, by a folk song researcher, from a man who testified to having it heard sung by the troops that, on August 10th 1916, took Gorizia. The battle of Gorizia (August 9-10) claimed, according to official data, the life of 1,759 officers and about 50,000 soldiers on the Italian side, and 862 officers and about 40,000 soldiers on the Austrian side.

I have heard it said that you could be executed if found singing it, which isn't all that unlikely, sedition being a serious offence then, especially in wartime. Nowadays, even the webpages of the National Association of Alpine Corps can offer its lyrics, but not so long ago folk singers were prosecuted for public slighting of the Armed Forces for having sung it, and could provoke outrage by performing it.

The song is a curse, and a dying man's curse at that, of the object of the offensive, the city of Gorizia; and of the men who had sent the soldier to fight while remaining safely behind the lines; and of the whole concept of a national borders somehow affecting the nature and quality of the land. My parents and me used to sing it on long car journeys. You can hear it here (takes forever to load)

On the morning of the fifth of August
The Italian troops were moving
For Gorizia the far-away lands
And grieving each of us left

Under the pouring water
And a hail of enemy balls
On mountains, hills and great valleys
We died while saying this:

Oh Gorizia may you be cursed
By any heart gifted with conscience
Grievous was our leaving
And return was not for many

Oh you cowards that now lay
With your wives on wooden beds
Mockers of us human flesh
This war will teach us to punish

You call it the field of honor
This same land beyond the borders
We die here calling you murderers
May you be cursed some day

Oh dear wife who cannot hear me
I entrust to my comrades beside me
To provide for my children
While I die with your name in my heart

Oh Gorizia may you be cursed
By any heart gifted with conscience
Grievous was our leaving
And return was not for all.

I have been thinking a lot about my grandfather of late, if nothing else because he was an enthusiastic swimmer who taught me to swim when I was less than a years old, and I've been dutifully going the swimming pool lately. And though he had not been in Gorizia, he fought for all of the First World War on the mountains. Actually, he was on the Monte Nero, I believe, and the Monte Canino, also recorded bitterly in song. I think I'll go up to Monte Grappa, to see the trenches and galleries, next week. The memory of the great carnage is never far away, geographically, but mine is the last generation that actually heard the stories from the living voice of people who had been there, and knew. I wish now that he's gone, as I guess every granchild ever did, that I had paid more attention to him.

Still, I guess Marilyn Monroe makes for a better story. It's a lot easier to dismiss her.

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